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04/25/2009

What Good is the News?

No doubt you've heard from or about Amity Shlaes in recent months. She's been in demand; her revisionist views on the impact of the New Deal on the economy of the Depression have made her the darling of conservatives seeking to stand in the way of expansionary economic policies. The symbiotic relationship between Shlaes and Republicans has set up an interesting dynamic. She has a book called The Forgotten Man which calls into question the value of expansionary policy in the 1930s. Republicans really need some research to that effect, so they all start carrying around her book. Well, this is news, and so the press writes up the story of the academic behind the GOP's economic ideas. Of course, they need to present the other side, so they find an economist or two (usually) to say that Shlaes ideas are utter dreck. But it doesn't matter to readers; academics disagree about things all the time.

So you have the papers paying attention to Shlaes, which suggests she's worth paying attention to, and noting that academics disagree with her, suggesting that this is an area of academic debate. Suddenly she seems very authoritative! Which is good for Republicans and for Shlaes and for the papers, which get eyeballs from writing a story about a contrarian view of economic policy. Things even go a step further when Shlaes joins the council on Foreign Relations. CFR lends her an air of credibility, while Shlaes' omnipresence means that CFR is always in the news, and getting lots of traffic at its website.

The problem, of course, is that Shlaes views are bunk. Eric Rauchway, who has labored to explain to folks why Shlaes should be ignored, writes:

The problem with Politico reporting of Amity Shlaes's Forgotten Man...is not that it's "they-said, she-said" journalism, but that it's an inadequate representation of the truth. It's not just Shlaes versus a famously shrill Nobelist and some dude at an ag university; it's Shlaes versus the accepted academic consensus.

As previously noted, if you were a sufficiently honest and competent researcher located like Amity Shlaes near any number of world-class reference libraries simply out to find out the unemployment rate in the 1930s, you would not find the data Shlaes cites; you would find, in the authoritative reference work, an explanation of why it's not best to cite the data Shlaes cites. Shlaes has to go out of her way to find other data.

Rauchway notes the obvious parallels -- press coverage long ago of the health effects of smoking, and press coverage now of the science of climate change. The way in which reporters write about the latter drives climate scientists insane; peer-reviewed, well-accepted scientific findings are routinely placed alongside the drivel published by think tanks funded by fossil fuel interests to protect fossil fuel interests. Andy Revkin at the New York Times had a blockbuster story to this effect just yesterday. Industry groups were told by their scientists over a decade ago that their climate change denialism wasn't supported by the facts, and yet they continued to fund organizations claiming the opposite. Revkin writes:

By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition [which was financed by fossil fuel industries] were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

George Monbiot, a British environmental activist and writer, said that by promoting doubt, industry had taken advantage of news media norms requiring neutral coverage of issues, just as the tobacco industry once had.

"They didn't have to win the argument to succeed," Mr. Monbiot said, "only to cause as much confusion as possible."

The ironic thing is that Revkin himself has deployed false equivalency in print in damaging ways. Not long ago he warned of the "pitfall" of exaggeration, comparing a slide used by Al Gore in presentations showing a rise in recent weather disasters to George Will's recent claim that no warming has taken place in the past decade. Later he defended himself against the scathing criticism which followed, saying:

In a longer story, I might have included some of the biographical background showing just how different these two men are on the issue...But the differences in the mens' backgrounds, expertise and reputations were not at the heart of this piece. It was about the realities of climate science and long-term risk assessments and how they are a bad fit for the policy arena, no matter what your worldview or level of knowledge.

It was very nearly a brilliant piece of meta-criticism; his piece explaining the problem of representing scientific ideas in public was itself the key supporting evidence.

But in fact, the problem is not nearly so hard as all that. The media has simply confused the idea of presenting the best possible picture of the truth with presenting all sides of the story. But the truth is not at all the average of all sides of the story; it is not that some say climate change is a problem and others don't, it's that the overwhelming consensus of experts is that climate change is a problem and some others, most of which are talking their book, don't.

The truth, as it turns out, is a weighted average of view points, and to understand it appropriately is to need the weights. But that requires journalists to tell readers the weights, and journalists are reluctant to do so. To express the degree of rightness of one idea versus another is, in their view, to opine, and opinion, we all seem to know, has no place in news coverage.

This is just lazy thinking. News reporters should consider the effect of their coverage in deciding whether it appropriately represents the situation being covered. If the effect on viewers or readers is to create an excessive sense of indeterminance on an issue, well, that's not an accurate representation of the truth. It's opinion journalism by incompetence.

Opinions on the shape of the earth differ, but the world is round and warming. Time for journalists to quit falling back in cowardice on the dicta of their profession, stop being played by interests, and tell the audience, as best they can, what's actually happening.Related Links
In the Air
It's Like They Take Pride in Being Ignorant
44, Day 68: Ambitious Climate Initiative



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